Want to Rent a Car in Europe? Here's How

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Renting a car is hard enough in the States, but throw in foreign street signs, right-sided driving wheels and Paris rush-hour traffic, and your European road trip could be headed for a ditch. To help smooth the way, we've addressed many concerns Americans have before driving abroad, from insurance policies to speed limits (yes, there are speed limits on the autobahn). -- Andrea Sachs

· Renting a car. Book with an established company, says Tom Fedasz, manager of touring services at the National Automobile Club, a California-based auto assistance company. International firms like Hertz and Alamo and brokers like Auto Europe, which secures wholesale prices from such major chains as Hertz and Avis, have offices in different countries -- plus, they have proven reputations. Often you can save up to 50 percent if you rent before you go, says Mariana Field Hoppin, a travel consultant for Avis Europe. Also, pay in advance to secure the price in U.S. dollars. Shop around, though: If you find rates are cheaper at dependable firms once you arrive, see if you can cancel your existing reservation penalty-free and rebook.

When booking, ask the reservationist if your destination and/or the rental company restricts drivers of certain ages. Usually, travelers 25 and older can rent a car, but those pushing retirement age might not be allowed to rent or drive (in Ireland, for example, those 75 and older are prohibited from renting).

· Choosing a car. Pick simplicity over style. Though standard transmission cars are more prevalent in Europe, if your shifting skills are shaky, pay the 10 to 20 percent more for an automatic. Also, consider renting a smaller car, since many European cities were built for horse-drawn carriages, not Hummers. Hoppin recommends a midsize model, large enough to fit your bags but small enough to park on medieval streets.

· Picking insurance coverage. Your car insurance policy in America most likely does not extend to Europe, explains David Snyder, vice president and assistant general counsel of the American Insurance Association. Check first with your insurance company about the breadth of coverage on all of your policies -- auto, medical, homeowners. If you're not protected, you will need to purchase insurance at the car rental counter.

"You want to be totally protected in case of theft, loss, car accidents," says Fedasz. At the very least, purchase the minimum requirement, most likely full liability. (Avis U.K., for example, recommends the collision damage waiver, which costs about $12 a day, plus VAT.) Snyder, however, suggests upping the coverage -- you don't want to go broke paying for Fabio's rear-ended Ferrari.

If you're planning to cross borders, inform the rental car company about your itinerary, since the rules (and insurance requirements) could change as you move east. Says Hoppin: "It gets murky in the former Iron Curtain countries."

If you're staying in the EU, though, you should have no problems. "Every EU Country complies with the First Directive on Motor Insurance (which says that every Insurance policy issued in the EU must offer the minimum insurance cover required by law in any other EU country)," Avis U.K. spokesman Xavier Vallee said by e-mail.

· Getting an International Driver's Permit. There is much debate about whether an International Driver's Permit (IDP) -- which translates the information on your U.S. driver's license into various foreign languages -- is necessary. (Note: The IDP does not replace your U.S. driver's license, which you must carry at all times.) Each country has different requirements, but as many travelers have experienced, the rules can be fluid. In addition, some rental companies require an IDP, others "recommend" it and a few ignore it -- sometimes in the same country.

So should you spring for an IDP? The National Automobile Club's Fedasz says, "We recommend that you carry the IDP, especially in areas where you do not have full knowledge of the language." The U.S. State Department seconds that opinion (for its position and other foreign driving tips, see http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/safety/safety_1179.html ). The main motivation for getting an IDP is the law: If you're stopped by the police or get into an accident in a foreign country, your IDP can protect you from further fines, fuss and confusion. For proof, Fedasz recounts how an American driving in Greece was ticketed $500 for not having an IDP.

The IDP costs $10 and can be purchased through AAA (800-436-4222, http://www.aaa.com/ ) or the National Automobile Club (650-294-7000, http://www.thenac.com/ ). For countries' IDP rules, see the U.K.-based Automobile Association's Web site ( http://www.theaa.com/ ) or contact AAA.

· Planning your road trip. Via Michelin is the map master. Buy the maps at any major bookstore or online at http://www.viamichelin.com/ . In addition, Michelin's Web site lets you plug in directions for destinations as specific as Rue A to Rue B or as general as Amsterdam to Oslo. The Automobile Association (see above) also has maps, an online navigating tool and other driving services.

For more detailed guidelines, AutoEurope's Web site ( http://www.autoeurope.com/ ) provides helpful car-and-driver primers -- speed limits, gas station hours, car-related vocab words, etc. -- for more than 30 European countries. Avis (800-698-5674, http://www.avis.com/ ) publishes the free "European Driving Made Easy" guide that depicts international road signs, among other info. If you're befuddled by a road sign, AAA spokesman Michael L. Pina offers this simple rule: "Blue says 'do,' red says 'don't.' "

· Spicing up your drive. Combine driving and train travel with a Eurail combo program. For example, the EurailDrive Pass offers four days of train travel and a two-day car rental (from $506) around 17 countries. There are also single-country passes. Info: 877-257-2887, http://www.raileurope.com./ Slip on your leather driving gloves and get behind the wheel of a classic car, such as an Aston Martin or a Triumph Spitfire. The Grand Touring Club (011-44-1449-73-7774, http://classic.grandtouringclub.com/ ) rents cars befitting Bond.

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